Wednesday, May 8, 2019

For the mystery writer who likes historicals or the historical reader who wants a whodunit - Park Avenue Summer and Murder Knocks Twice

I was speaking to Anne about upcoming mystery novels recently, and she asked me when there would be a follow up to Ghost Talkers, the novel about mediums in World War I. "Now that was a good mystery," said* Anne. "Well," I replied, "she followed that novel up with two novels in another series called Lady Astronaut, but what I didn't say was that I don't think the publisher meant the novel to be in the mystery genre - they certainly didn't position it that way.

You're think such novels would be a boon to publishers, but from what I've heard, it's quite the opposite. If lots of different audiences come to a novel, it's great, but they when it comes to marketing, they see it as a problem. It's best for a novel to have strong positioning, and that leads to books being very different on the outside turning out to be not so different on the inside.

Take, for example, Renée Rosen's latest novel, Park Avenue Summer. I've been read several of Rosen's novels now, starting with What the Lady Wants, her historical about Marshall Field and his longtime mistress. That one was a bit of an outlier, as the woman at the center of the novel was a real person. In her other books, Dollface, White Collar Girl, and Windy City Blues, her heroine is generally a fictional creation, birthed into a historical situation surrounded by real people. They tend to be relatively naive but strong-willed, and willing to break boundaries to get what they want.

That's the case with the heroine at her latest novel, with Rosen moving to a Big Apple setting after her string of Chi-Towners. In this case, Alice Weiss has moved from Youngstown, Ohio to New York, to pursue the dreams that passed by her late mom. She really wants to be a photographer, but sets are sites on the more attainable goal of office work. And since her mom had a friend at Bernard Geis and Associates, she's got an in - and get an interview with Helen Gurley Brown, who has just taken on reviving Cosmopolitan for Hearst. And let's just say, the boys at Hearst don't have her back.

Rosen brings 1960s New York to life in Park Avenue Summer, from the bars and restaurants to old-style publishing. During the course of the book, the folks at Geis, which published Brown's Sex and the Single Girl (hence the connection) are readying their next blockbuster, Valley of the Dolls. And at one point Alice goes on a photo shoot for Francesco Scavullo. But at the heart of the story is Alice's quandary about liberation - should she have an affair with the office lothario or instead have a more traditional friend-mance with a free-lance photographer. Is Brown truly liberated if she continues to depend on the support of her wealthy and influential producer husband, and is the true liberation for Alice to follow her sexual passion or her career passion?

It was kind of fun to read this after the real-life magazine adventures so breathtakingly brought to life in Ruth Reichl's Save Me the Plums. The frugality of the Hearst bosses (fictional as it was) was a fascinating counterpoint to the sky-high budgets of Condé Nast under SI Newhouse.

There's not question that Park Avenue Summer is positioned firmly in the historical novel category, and I don't mean the highbrow British period work of Hilary Mantel. These historicals have sort of picked up  the higher end audience of traditional romance, now that that has moved mostly online. Historical writers tend to stick to one book a year, sometimes one book every two years, whereas a romance writer might publish two or three, so there is more time to research, develop characters and story, and go through more rounds of editing.

I like a straightforward story that's well told. I can't always jump around in time and place, with multiple perspectives, and not every book I read can be stream of consciousness. After I spend two weeks reading a book that needs lots of notes, a family tree, and a creative way of keeping straight all the characters that have no names in the story, it's nice to read a book where things are spelled out for me. And that's also a reason why I tend to read a decent amount of mysteries and thrillers.

There are a few other reasons, of course. We have an audience of customers who will take some direction in terms of recommendations, which is not true for every kind of book. And we have a decent number of author events in the area, and it's always easier for me to sell a book to the right people if I've read it. Mind you, I can't read everything, and there are some genres, like YA, where I have several other folks on staff who can fill the role of store champion.

One author whose latest is published firmly in the mystery genre is Susanna Calkins, Her latest,  Murder Knocks Twice, comes after a series of novels set in 17th century London (the first is Murder at Rosamund's Gate). For her latest, she's turned to 1920s Chicago. At the center of this story is Gina Ricci, a young woman whose mother has passed away and whose father is stricken with palsy. A neighborhood pal tells her about a gig as a cigarette girl at a local speakeasy, and she goes for it, even after figuring out that the woman she's replacing was murdered.

Gina slowly learns the ropes at this bar operating during prohibition's heyday. She takes shifts at the cover operations, a tea room and a pharmacy, where she befriends a young African American man who hopes to one day be a doctor. She watches the cops being paid off. She avoids the advances of the heavy-drinking piano player. And she notices the photographer who takes photos of the guest. When she strikes up a conversation with her, it turns out he's her late mom's cousin, but a family fallout has kept them apart. And then, well, there's another murder and Gina finds herself in the center of the drama.

And how exactly did she wander into this situation anyway? Was her invitation to apply accidental? Is her father involved? And how is this independent operation going to survive with Al Capone's mob taking over Chicago?

No question this is structured as a mystery and it lives up to its billing. For those who like crime stories, but find cozies to soft and noir too violent, this is the baby bear of the genre, right in the middle. And there is quite a bit of crossover to historical fiction as well, and particularly that of Renée Rosen's novels. So much overlap! For one thing, Gina is a classic Rosen character, the naif put in the middle of a situation that she has to think her way out of. She needs to find out what happened, but she's also anxious to figure out what she really wants to do in life.

Rosen even covered this period in Dollface. And yes, Rosen did give Calkins a quote on the book, calling it "a page-turning romp." But I think they could not have predicted they would both have an April 30 pub date - but they did! It's kismet. Really, it almost feels like they were playing off each other in writing these novels, positioned so differently, but really intended for a similar reader. I would love to know what other readers think about this, and I'd also love to know their thoughts on this. Hoping someone had (or is having) the two in conversation**.

I will be ask them myself as both are doing events with Boswell, only separately. Calkins will be at Boswell on Thursday, May 16, 7 pm, where she'll be in conversation with Erica Ruth Neubauer. Renée Rosen is not doing a public event with us this time, but she will be the featured author at the Woman's Club of Wisconsin annual book club luncheon they do every spring. It's being held on Tuesday, May 14, and if you belong or have friends who belong, ask them make a reservation for you.  I'll be presenting book club picks for about 30 minutes before Rosen does her presentation. I've seen her talks, at both Boswell and the Lynden Sculpture Garden, and they are great fun. And I try to be fun too. So that's a lot of fun.

*That's not what she said. But it was close.

**They in fact did an event together at Book Stall in Winnetka last week.

Photo credits
Renée Rosen - Charles Osgood
Susanna Calkins - Lisa Bagadia

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